There's a moment in the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War campaign that is quickly becoming the new "Press F to pay respects" amongst the fanbase faithful. It occurs during Woods and Mason's infiltration into the Mount Yamantau facility that also served as a key location in the original Black Ops game, when the former suggests maintaining a low profile to avoid detection.
"Yeah, because you're the expert in quiet!", jokes Mason, dryly.
"I'm a goddamn onion, Mason", replies Woods, "you should know that."
The implication here, of course, is that Woods is a man of many layers, with clandestine warfare being just one of them, but the clumsiness of the line, and the context in which it's unexpectedly spurted, has already made it an easy target for the internet's sightlines.
Even Woods' original voice actor, James C Burns, who wasn't asked to return for Cold War, struggled to repeat the aphorism on a recent livestream without cracking up. "Woods wouldn't say that," he grumbles in a fashion ironically typical of his character, "Who the fuck says that?!"
Funnily enough, it's Burns' noticeably confused, exasperated laughter that ultimately sums up my entire relationship with the latest Call of Duty campaign, which is so uneven, so brazen-faced in its tone, structure, and quality, that you can't help but giggle.
It's the kind of story that deserves everything it gets by unlocking the secret "bad" ending, which – in its own twisted way – feels like the only appropriate climax for a campaign that doesn't so much as jump the shark as it does repeatedly shoot it in the head until there's nothing but fish guts.
Back in Black
Let's recap that ending first, with full spoilers as a warning to those who haven't completed it yet. As part of the game's big twist bombshell drop, CIA operative Adler reveals that he's been brainwashing your character, a former Russian agent nicknamed Bell, into believing they've been allies for decades.
From there, you have the choice to either help him hunt down Cold War's big bad, Perseus, or deceive him, providing false intel on the villain's location. If you pursue the latter, while also managing to contact Perseus via a radio that can be uncovered in your safehouse, you'll be rewarded with the chance to stage an ambush on Adler and his crew as revenge for their manipulation.
In this scenario, you'll have to gun down all of your former friends one by one, including Adler and even Black Ops mainstays Woods and Mason, complete with bullet-cams chronicling their demise in gruesome fashion. From there, Perseus launches the last part of his master plan, nuking the entirety of western Europe and staging America as responsible, before whisking you away to a secret location safe and sound.
It is, by all accounts, utterly ridiculous, cramming decades of Black Ops lore into a blender and shredding up the timeline, making it impossible for the other sequels to even take place. Yet it's also the ending that, to me, feels most fitting for Raven Software's first stab at a Call of Duty campaign, though I would be surprised if anyone (especially Black Ops creator Treyarch, who co-developed the game) considers it canonical going forward.
That's because Black Ops Cold War is all over the place even before reaching that screwball climax, from its disturbingly unironic portrayal of one of America's most pernicious presidents, to its grabbag mix of levels, positioning bafflingly old school corridor shooter sequences next to wild, experimental capers inspired by the spycraft of its setting.
That's not to say Black Ops Cold War's campaign is one to avoid entirely. Contrarily, those more innovative missions are some of the most interesting and cleverly designed levels I've played in a Call of Duty game in years, from infiltrating the Soviet Union to navigating an ever-changing mind palace of your own making.
But it's the company you keep during these operations that undermine much of Cold War's ability to connect. Adler, with his unflappable aura of 80's infused nonchalance, is meant to be a comrade that we admire at first, but even after his true intentions are revealed, it's hard to engage with someone that feels more like analogous iconography than an actual human being.
It doesn't help that some of his dialogue is painfully tone-deaf at times, either. "You're still one of us", he says to Bell shortly after putting them through the most damaging physical and psychological trauma of their lifetime. No, Adler, I'm absolutely not "one of you".
Woods and Mason, meanwhile, not only act and sound like histrionic pastiches of their former selves, but are bizarrely sidelined for much of the story, as if their sole purpose is to infrequently reassure the player that this is, in fact, the Black Ops game they paid for.
And that's not incorrect, either, in a weird sort of way. The Black Ops series' original themes of paranoia, government corruption, and state secrecy have slowly degenerated into an off-putting blend of sadistic nihilism over the course of its ten year history. Cold War – with its thoroughly irredeemable characters and total lack of self-awareness – feels like the only logical endpoint of that journey.
By the time I reached that gloriously stupid ending, then, I was more than ready to watch the world burn, so long as it meant taking this entire strain of Black Ops narrative nonsense down with it.
The opportunity to channel my frustrations with Cold War in the form of digital bullets aimed straight at Adler's head thus felt like a poetic justice of sorts, bringing everything full circle with this final act of reckless violence.
Black Ops Cold War gives you far more reason to act as boorishly as its campaign than truly invest in any of it. As a result, it didn't just seem apt to let the bad guys win, but necessary. The world they're winning wasn't much of a world worth saving anyway.